When Sponsored Content Met CSR and Made Magic Happen

One thing we can all agree on: PR professionals will spend a lot of time working on sponsored content and corporate social responsibility projects for the foreseeable future.

“Sponsored content” is the hottest phrase in PR and marketing right now, primarily because it means such different things to different people. Yes, it’s a new twist on the classic advertising discipline, but SC can clearly amount to more than BuzzFeed listicles barely related to the product at hand or conspicuous blog posts that hang out at The Huffington Post under the “sponsored story” heading.

Last month we spoke to Matt Crenshaw, president of environmental and social responsibility news site Mother Nature Network, to learn about how his organization has begun to serve clients by combining CSR and sponsored content in one fell swoop.

Why are brands increasing their focus on CSR? 

Well, a recent Cone Communications study found that 80% of people feel that brands have a responsibility to tell them what they’re doing for the greater good, and another study found that brands that put “values” at their core outperform the S&P 500 by about 300%. We all joke about Whole Foods being “Whole Paycheck”, but they are really a lifestyle platform based on “values”, and they’ve done a great job of taking this niche movement and making a big business out of it.

What role can sponsored content play in this equation?

We live in an age where brands need to tell a story and hit you on an emotional level. MNN wants to be the Whole Foods for content: if you’re AT&T and you want to reach the high-value, socially responsible consumer, then you don’t talk about a discount on your phone, you talk about these tablets you created for kids on the autistic spectrum to help them learn. So MNN created a documentary series about it:

Of course, at the end it’s “AT&T: Rethink Possible”, and it’s clearly labeled “content provided by AT&T“, but our role is to say “here’s the story behind the brand.”

What distinguishes MNN’s approach to sponsored content?

The current media landscape is dominated by snark, but there’s a latent demand for content that truly inspires and makes you feel good. Brands really do want to drive the conversation, and they want to earn the public’s attention.

For example, we did an infographic for UPS about environmental impact: we interviewed them and created this image on the theme “what can 1 million trees do?”

Nobody can look at that and not think UPS is involved, but Greenpeace found it unbeknownst to us and tweeted it out to their 850,000 followers.

We created that earned media with great content. And readers may notice that it’s sponsored, but they clicked it because it was interesting.

How do you sell this service to clients? 

Back in 2009, we would tell clients “we’ll create content for you” and they’d say “we have an agency to do that”. But now we essentially approach brands and say “we know everything about this audience via polling, analytics, product testing, etc. and we have full content-production capabilities.”

How does MNN’s content better serve a client’s CSR needs than their own material? 

The big challenge in the CSR is this: where do you put these messages? Its not enough to put out a press release, because it feels self-serving. It’s not enough to buy ads, because they’re limiting. And it’s not enough to build a corporate website because no one goes to corporate websites. But working with MNN is essentially a CSR move because we’re creating a platform to connect socially responsible consumers to the brands that are trying to reach them on an emotional level.

As another example, here’s a documentary we produced for the railway brand CSX about how they helped build New York’s High Line Park:

Is anyone going to see this and say “sorry, this is sponsored content?” I don’t think so.

 What will be the big challenge for sponsored content moving forward? 

The problem is that we’re too defensive about it. Everyone hears the phrase and bristles, but none of the material on MNN or BuzzFeed would be free if not for sponsors. What we’re really talking about here is product placement, and nobody complains about product placement when it’s done well. Do you need to label it sponsored content if it’s well-done?

What do we think of MNN’s take on sponsored content and Matt’s thoughts about integrating well-made material with editorial?

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